Working with Dr. Schweitzer

Chapter 2. The Challenge

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.
Share as much as you can of your spiritual life with those who walk the same road as you, and cherish what comes back from them to you.

(Albert Schweitzer, Kein Sonnenstrahl gebt verloren p. 55)

- Author's translation

On the fifth day of my visit to Lambaréné, just as I was preparing to leave, Albert Schweitzer sent word that he wanted to see me privately. The other visitors looked at me with envy, for few of them had been able to talk to him alone. Increasingly restless and ill at ease among the busy people at the hospital, they had wandered aimlessly around with their cameras ready, not noticing that it was precisely their importunate photographing which had prevented them from gaining access to Dr. Schweitzer. So, to avoid the embarrassing and repetitious scene of a stranger jumping in front of him to take a snapshot without even the courtesy of introducing himself, he would hurry across the yard on his way to the hospital or dining room. It was, therefore, nearly impossible to meet him casually and to strike up a personal conversation.

An epidemic of measles had brought scores of sick children to Lambaréné, adding extra work to the already overburdened hospital staff. During my work in East Africa, I had encountered measles epidemics on several occasions and was familiar with the disease and its detrimental consequences for the children of the tropics. It was therefore only natural that I helped out from the very moment I set foot in the hospital. Measles as it is known in Europe is not a very serious children's disease anymore. If the child is put to bed and given enough to drink as long as the fever lasts, it will soon recover.

Measles is easily recognized by its characteristic reddish rash on the skin of the face, arms, and body. In Africa, however, it is another story. Because of the dark skin of the African child, the measles rash is hard to discover, and medical treatment is often not started before the child is seriously ill. The malaria-ridden, parasite-infested children of the jungle, anemic and undernourished as they are, quickly succumb to pneumonia or dehydration which are frequent complications of febrile illnesses in the tropics.

When I looked around at the crowd of children that first day at Dr. Schweitzer's hospital, I noted the miserable condition of many of them; shallow respiration, a rasping cough, flapping nostrils and bloody froth, all signs of the beginning lung inflammation.

Anne-Lise, the children's nurse, with her African helpers and myself, soon formed a smooth working team. Together we watched out for the first signs of measles among the children that crowded the hospital. As soon as one of my helpers discovered a child with sore eyes, a running nose, burning fever and the characteristic rough skin indicating measles, they would bring the child to me into the consultation room. Sometimes it was not even necessary to use the stethoscope. My hands placed flat on the child's burning chest could feel the roughness of breathing inside. Although one shot of penicillin sometimes worked wonders, we realized that some of the children were already beyond remedy. We were constantly surrounded by coughing, moaning, and even dying children, as many families had arrived too late with their sick. We taught the sobbing mothers how to cool down the feverish body with a wet cloth and to make it drink as soon as we had given the medication.

Long after the other staff members had left the hospital, we were running around trying to find our little patients, scattered all over the place, as they were, so we could keep an eye on their progress and encourage disheartened relatives to keep up the vigil.

There had not been much rest those five days, so when Dr. Schweitzer called me that morning, I went to him with a heavy heart. I suspected he would ask me to stay and I simply felt too worn out to take on another job. It had been the thought of the long and restful journey aboard the freighter which had kept me going during my last month in the Congo. Now the intense tropical heat and humidity in Lambaréné was particularly oppressive; it seemed to drain away my strength.

It was, then, with mixed feelings that I entered the room where Albert Schweitzer worked and slept. I was immediately taken aback. What a mess! An incredibly small and overcrowded place. The desk took up nearly all the space by the window and was so cramped with books and papers that there was hardly any space left to write. Batches of letters, worn-out books, and manuscripts were heaped in bundles on the floor beside the table; personal belongings were tucked away somewhere between books; clothes hung from a line across the room; a few faded photographs and African straw mats decorated what space was left over the bed and above the famous organ. Before I had time to recover, I was being invited to sit down on the only available chair in the room.

“It is the first time someone from Norway visits me in Lambaréné,” Dr. Schweitzer said with a winning smile. “I have always wished to welcome Norwegians here because I have very happy memories of that country.”

His face lit up when I told him I had been among the students who saluted him with torches in front of City Hall in Oslo on that memorable day.

“Now you can see for yourself how I have used the funds the Norwegian people so generously added to the Nobel prize I received,” Dr. Schweitzer said cheerfully. Then he paused, adding with a sigh, “It is an irony that the first time I welcome a Norwegian to Lambaréné I have to appeal to Norwegian generosity again.”

As I did not answer, he continued.

“I hear you have experience in tropical medicine. If you would be willing to stay for a while and work with us until another physician from Europe arrives, I would feel very obliged indeed.”

Unable to answer right away, I looked down. Months could pass before another physician would arrive! Seeing the refreshing sea journey disappear into the distant future and thinking of the strenuous hospital work lying ahead was too much. A feeling of inertia paralyzed me. I had not planned to stay on in Lambaréné. I was used to working independently in Africa, and I did not like the idea of having to work under such an authoritarian person as I perceived this old doctor to be.

I felt angry, too, for I knew I would give in to his request. I would no longer be able to relax and enjoy a leisurely voyage; the thought of having turned down Albert Schweitzer would take away my peace of mind.

“You are young. Some members of my staff have considerable experience in the tropics; there are many things you could learn from them.... And I daresay that there is a good spirit of cooperation at my hospital,” I heard him continue. His voice had become pleading.

I looked up into his searching eyes, startled. What was this? Had I not admired Albert Schweitzer for his tenacity and ability to rise above physical fatigue and produce works of art, literature, and philosophy, even under the most trying conditions? And now, when my chance to live up to such a challenge had come, should it find me too feeble? A flood of energy welled up in me.

I seized his hand and said I would very much like to stay. I had already experienced the friendly atmosphere at his hospital and would look forward to working there. A feeling of shame for having hesitated overcame me when I saw the relief on the old doctor's face. He leaned forward and looked at me intensely.

“And now, as this matter is settled, could you please tell me how it came about that you, of all people, a specialist in tropical medicine, happened to step ashore from a little canoe right in front of my hospital just at this time of dire need?”

I was at a loss as to how to respond. Was it the eyes looking at me with such friendliness, or the wish to make up for my hesitation before? I do not know. The fact is, I suddenly lost my usual reservation and began to talk. I had to tell about the fears I had experienced when grappling with fatal diseases in the East African bush, without colleagues to consult, the shocking experience of facing hostile and suspicious African staff at hospitals and dispensaries in the war-torn Congo when violence threatened both helping personnel and patients alike. I admitted that coming to visit him had been at the spur of the moment and that much unfinished work awaited me upon my return to East Africa.

How irresistible it is to open up to a sympathetic listener! Thoughts one did not even know of find their way over the lips. Only a tactful listener can help one overcome the embarrassment of such an outburst.

Dr. Schweitzer remained silent for a while when I finally came to a halt. His eyes seemed to look inward into the past.

“I know what it is like to be a young physician alone with oneself in a strange world,” he finally said. “People who have not lived in tropical Africa don't know what they talk about when they criticize us and judge our work. They also don't know what Africa gives us.”

Albert Schweitzer, the famous Helper, seemed lost in his own thoughts; his face had a mild, nearly melancholic expression.

“Nowhere else have I seen the drama of life and death played with such beauty, the struggle for survival fought with more courage, or sensed the powers of nature with such intensity. It makes us modern men small and humble before the Creator.”

His words helped me to recover. For a while we did not speak, and through the silence of the room we could hear the hustle and bustle from the hospital below. Then Dr. Schweitzer stood up and walked across the room, touching my cheek gently as he passed. To my great consternation, he laboriously went down on his knees and hauled out an old, dusty chest from underneath his bed. Searching among all kinds of odd things, he took out a bundle wrapped in old cloth. This he put under his arm and, pushing the chest back, he struggled to his feet. Then, brushing away papers on his desk, he unwrapped the bundle.

“In memory of our conversation today,” he said, “I want to give you this. It holds the dental instruments I used during my early years in Lambaréné. When we first met, you asked me for an opportunity to learn more about dentistry at my hospital. Well, take these instruments of mine as a token of my appreciation for the work you are doing in Africa.”

I looked at the rusty old instruments spread out on the table and hoped in my heart that I would never have to use any of them. At the same time, I felt very touched by this personal gesture.

“Please do not show them to anybody here,” the old doctor said, a humorous twinkle in his eyes. “I don't want any jealousy among my staff.”

With that, he handed me the bundle and escorted me out into the yard. He thanked me again with a warm handshake. “I think you will enjoy your stay with us. You will learn from us-and we will profit from you.” He laughed and squeezed my arm. “I'll call you again,” he said with a broad smile, and without waiting for me to find words of thanks, he turned and walked back to his room.

I hastened to my quarters and hid the precious gift in my suitcase. Then I sat down on my bed, taking time to sort out the many impressions I had received during the meeting with Albert Schweitzer. First of all, there was that room! Heaps of unanswered letters, open books and books with markers hanging out, papers with notes scribbled upon them, unfinished manuscripts. All this attested to the self-forgetting, all-absorbing activity of a searching mind. Albert Schweitzer was eighty-six years old; his mind was still clear, and his general health surprisingly good. Words he had written in his autobiography some thirty years before came to my mind. Already, that long ago, he had wondered how much of his planned work he would have time to complete. I reached for the book and searched until I found the page:

My hair is beginning to turn. My body is beginning to show traces of the exertions I have demanded of it and of the passage of the years.
If he already felt like that thirty years ago, how much more pressing must time be for him today! The urgency of reaching his objectives was probably the reason for a certain tension and impatience one sensed in him. I had noticed that when away from his crammed room, he sometimes appeared uneasy and absent-minded. Maybe he was thinking about his work; which texts to consult, what ideas to put down on paper. I could now understand why he had been so anxious for me to stay. He wanted a quick solution to the hospital crisis so he could free his mind and turn to more important tasks. Yes, that was what had moved me when seeing his messy room. It bore witness of an old man who was seriously and honesty struggling to bring to a meaningful synthesis the experiences and insights of a long and arduous lifetime.

I rose from my bed and looked about me with new interest. Now that I had made up my mind to stay, I felt quite excited. In spite of the inconvenience of having to change my plans, I felt I had made the right decision.

Because I had worked for years in Africa myself, and knew the conditions of other hospitals and medical services in the tropics, I would be able to judge for myself whether it was true, as some journalists had stated, that the hospital was below acceptable standards. And, first of all, I would get to know the legendary man who, by some, was looked upon as a Saint, but by others was accused of being a self-righteous and old-fashioned tyrant. This kind of criticism, which had been for some years so easily levied by visitors to Lambaréné, was disturbing to chose who had drawn strength from the untainted image of Albert Schweitzer, the humanitarian physician, philosopher, and musician.

Already now, after the first few days in Lambaréné, I felt that the answer to the enigma Albert Schweitzer was not a simple one and that it would take more than a quick glance and a superficial meeting to know what it was like to work with Dr. Schweitzer and in his controversial hospital.

Copyright © 1990 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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